Parashat Pinhas in the Warsaw Ghetto (July 20, 1940)

July brought new tribulations upon the Jewish community as the Nazis, energized by their victories on the western front, formally eliminated virtually every non-governmental organization in the General Government. Charitable agencies, cultural leagues, and of course political groups were abolished, for both Jews and Poles. The ghetto population increased by tens of thousands as Jews who were expelled from Cracow flowed into the Jewish quarter, and the Nazis enacted a new “obeisance decree” that required Jewish men to remove their hats and Jewish women to bow their heads in the presence of a German uniform, military or civil. The decree was enforced with severe beatings. Even Jewish books were targeted with wide-scale confiscations of library collections along with a ban on the printing and sale of Jewish reading material.  Conscription of Jews into brutal forced labor continued and even increased. 

The German occupation of Warsaw was especially hard on full-time Torah students, including those in the Piaseczno Rebbe’s yeshiva, Da’at Moshe. Writing in October 1941, Rabbi Shimon Huberband reflected on the decimation of this population:

There were over five thousand young men who studied in the yeshivas and shtiblekh of Warsaw before the war…there are currently no more than two hundred such young men in Warsaw.  This raises the question of what became of all the other young men who were studying in shtiblekh and yeshivas?

A considerable part of them left the “straight and narrow path” during the war, and ceased being observant Hasidim.  A large part perished, some left for the countryside, and still others managed to find various kinds of employment, while remaining observant Hasidic young men.

The poorer ones live from alms and from the aid of the wealthier students, as we have already written.  The kitchen for Torah scholars at 221 Gesia Street is of great assistance to these young men…

The Rebbe began his message for Parashat Pinhas with a possibly autobiographical reflection:

And Moses spoke to God…[appoint a man over the community] who will go out before them…who will take them out…and let the [community of God] not be like a [flock] without a shepherd [Numbers 27:14-17].  The Talmud teaches (Berakhot 28b) that when Rabbi Eliezer fell ill and his students came to visit him, they asked him, “teach us the ways of life so that we may merit the life in the world to come.  He said them, “keep your children away from unnecessary meditation [higayon] and place them among the knees of Torah scholars.” 

The Rebbe posed some unusual questions based on the interaction between Rabbi Eliezer and his students:

We see, first of all, that despite the fact that Torah study is primary and the foundation of everything, nonetheless it is insufficient to lead one to the life of the world to come, because certainly the students of Rabbi Eliezer learned much Torah from him–yet they still asked him to teach them how to reach the world to come. Furthermore, he did not answer, “continue to study more Torah,” rather he said something else.

We must also wonder why they waited to ask him this question until he was on his deathbed, and not earlier. During the entire course of a person’s life, one must strive to merit the world to come.  Furthermore, why did they even ask “so that we may merit the life in the world to come?” Do the Sages not teach that “one should not conduct himself like a servant, who serves in order to receive a reward”?

The Rebbe’s interpretation reflects the notion that Rabbi Eliezer’s students realized that with his passing they would have to make the transition from students to teachers themselves:

These were lifelong students of Rabbi Eliezer, and they certainly learned the ways of life from him, as would all students from their Master. When, however, the time of Rabbi Eliezer’s death approached, they knew that they must now assume the mantle of leading the generation.  Consequently, they asked him how they should best teach others, and how they should educate novices who are yet on a low spiritual level and perform Divine service “in order to receive a reward.” Therefore he answered them in a manner which to us, with our simple understanding, appears to contain a basic answer for novices.  It is possible to say, however, that the response that he gave them, namely “keep your children away from unnecessary meditation and place them among the knees of Torah scholars,” alludes to something which we must now take to heart.

The Rebbe delves into the strange association of learning and the knees, and connects it to the suffering experienced in the Warsaw ghetto:

The Talmud teaches (Berakhot 6a) that students who gathered to hear Torah discourses would experience weakness at the knees due to the influence of the demonic realm. We wonder, why specifically were the knees affected? We see that when Job’s friends came and saw how dejected he was due to the worries and suffering that had afflicted him, they said to him, “your words have raised the fallen, and you have strengthened weak knees” [Job 4:4]. This illustrates that a spiritually dejected person is called “weak-kneed.”  It is to this that the Talmud alludes when it speaks of weak knees.  When it is difficult for a person to bear the tribulations which Heaven has placed upon him, this spiritual dejection is the work of the demonic realm and the evil inclination.

We see that the evil inclination accomplishes this goal of causing the knees of the Jewish people to fail by implanting its agenda into one’s mind. This occurs not only in times of great tribulations, rather we have also seen this in the past. When one of the yeshiva students stumbled and abandoned his friends who were engrossed in Torah study to become a laborer or a merchant and abandoned his former ways, may the Merciful One rescue us, the underlying reason for this was that his faith was damaged, and he began to consider another agenda.  What is his purpose? How will he make a living? and so on, despite the fact that we see that poverty and wealth are not dependent on one’s occupation [rather by Divine decree], and one way or the other a person does not live forever. When a person’s final day comes, the wealthy man who did not conduct himself properly during his lifetime knows that he has nothing to fortify his spirit other than the fact that he ate well or had fine clothing, and at the time of his passing, these things are of no consequence to him. The lifelong student of Torah, and the person who lived his life according to Torah values, on the other hand, know that he has lived a life of purity, a life of Torah. Times have not changed in this respect. All the “weakness of the knees” comes from a change in agenda. For were it to be known that salvation would come tomorrow, everyone would strengthen themselves. Since their thinking has changed, however, they now wonder, “how long will this continue, who knows how long we can tolerate this,” and so on. For this reason fear intensifies and the body weakens, and “the knees fail.” Therefore it is essential to strengthen the foundations of faith, and distance this foreign agenda, and to trust that God will favor, redeem and save us.

The Rebbe clarified that Rabbi Eliezer’s warning to avoid “unnecessary meditations” refers to inappropriate philosophical speculations, and described why he used the metaphor of “knees:” both ideas were essential for his students, preparing to take leadership positions on his passing:

Rabbi Eliezer taught this to them when they themselves were about to become the leaders of the generation.  Firstly, in order that they will teach their students that intellect in and of itself is nothing, and with intellect alone a person cannot determine the course of the future, nor may he benefit himself.  Secondly, when the leader of the generation is inextricably bound to his faith, then this has a powerful impact upon those students who are bound to him, and will serve to distance unnecessary meditations, and they will thereby be strengthened in their faith due to the portion of their master which is infused within them.

…let the community of God not be like a flock without a shepherd, that they themselves have no inner leader, rather into the heart and essence of each one of them, let the shepherd enter and strengthen their faith in God.  In this way, God will also bring their salvation near their salvation.

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One thought on “Parashat Pinhas in the Warsaw Ghetto (July 20, 1940)

  1. Wow! Thank you so much for sharing Professor. I’ve heard you say you’re not an “official” Rabbi, but most definitely you are מורה מצוין on my ledger. I enjoy and learn so much history from your lectures, and now you’re enriching me spiritually. Baruch Hashem.
    Health and blessings to you.

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